Labor Pains

A fight between two unions here could set the course of the U.S. labor movement.

Enemy number one of the American Worker sits with a cup of iced tea in front of a San Francisco coffee shop, looking hardly menacing at all.

He's short, slight, and courteous; with his ruddy, goateed face, he resembles a kindly version of Vincent Price. He doesn't run union-busting Wal-Mart; he's no antilabor Republican congressman. He's Sal Rosselli, the one-time nursing assistant who in 1988 led an insurgent movement to usurp the old guard in a San Francisco health care workers' union local, and today is the leader of an upstart union attempting to achieve the greatest American labor upheaval in 70 years.

Rosselli is the head of the optimistically named National Union of Healthcare Workers (which so far represents only people in California), which is vying to represent 43,000 employees at Kaiser Permanente facilities. Kaiser workers, including nursing assistants, respiratory technicians, pharmacy technicians, and office staff, received ballots on Sept. 13. If NUHW wins, Rosselli says the next step is to put the squeeze on Kaiser bosses, then demand more benefits and better pay while shaping workplace standards and rules as the nonprofit chain expands.

"Under Obamacare, Kaiser is expected to explode with growth, possibly in New York, New England, and Chicago," Rosselli says, adding that if he wins the union election whose votes will be tallied this month, his hopped-up, idealistic Kaiser-employee union members will help inspire workers in those states to organize, too.

His cause is celebrated in San Francisco liberal circles, with progressive power brokers such as Democratic Party chairman John Burton, Democratic County Central Committee chairman Aaron Peskin, San Francisco Building and Trades Council president Larry Mazzola, political Svengali Clint Reilly, and prominent antipoverty activist Randy Shaw couching Rosselli as the new hope of the unionized left.

"If workers find their way to the truth," Shaw recently wrote in an online column on Beyond Chron, "NUHW can prevail."

The problem is that Rosselli isn't fighting the Man. Kaiser workers are already unionized, and enjoy one of the best contracts in the health care industry, according to academic labor specialists.

To prevail, NUHW has to persuade a majority of voting Kaiser workers to reject their current union, the 2.2-million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The vote is the biggest union election since 1941, when workers voted to join the United Auto Workers at Ford's plant in Dearborn, Mich. But that was about becoming unionized, not choosing between rival unions.

Rosselli used to be an SEIU leader himself. But he was cast out following an internal shakeup in which its Washington-based national leadership seized control of its 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West affiliate. Rosselli made powerful enemies in SEIU's ranks in 2007 when he expressed second thoughts about the union's national expansion strategy. He believed that the union had been giving up too much to employers, while compromising patient rights. Last year, Rosselli and his former SEIU lieutenants formed a breakaway union, whose hopes are pinned on enlisting workers at 350 Kaiser medical facilities around the state.

But outside the insular world of San Francisco progressivism, where activists often occupy themselves with shrubs rather than forests, the SEIU is no villainous foil to Rosselli's heroic crusade. It is the largest, fastest-growing union in the country. While other labor organizations' membership has shrunk over the past decade, SEIU's has grown. SEIU has organized janitors, hospital workers, and home care workers to provide a little sunshine for the otherwise-gloomy modern U.S. labor history.

The union has become a major political force, and is expected to spend $44 million supporting favored Democratic candidates during the fall election campaign. If workers at the menial-wage Wal-Marts of the world are ever to be unionized, if Congress is ever to be coerced into making U.S. labor law more amenable to workers, if the decline of working-class living standards is ever to halt, many reasonable labor observers believe it will be SEIU leaders who lead the charge. It won't be Sal Rosselli.

"The SEIU has been one of the brightest spots in the labor movement in recent years," says John Logan, professor and director of labor studies at San Francisco State University. "The way they've been characterized in this dispute doesn't ring true."

Indeed, the Kaiser election has been distinguished by venomous rhetoric, in which troops on both sides have accused each other of corruption, lies, incompetence, and even criminal collusion with the employer.

"It's been very tense," says Rene Santiago, a NUHW-supporting EKG technician at Kaiser's hospital on Geary near Divisadero. "People you were normally able to work with will now be like, 'Whose side are you on?'"

The respective leaders present a stark choice. "David Regan is a thug," Rosselli says in reference to the SEIU national vice president sent to California to oversee the healthcare affiliate he once led. Regan called the accusations that the union has used overbearing tactics to beat back the NUHW "utter lies."

But the questions that will be decided once the rhetoric and vote-counting subsides go deeper than choosing sides in the playground. Kaiser workers have been asked to choose an old-line brand of labor unionism that aggressively organizes workplaces; bargains for higher wages, health benefits, and fair workplace treatment; and then threatens to strike if workers don't get their way. Call this the Fight-the-Power model.

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